Trustee Academy keynote speaker Yong Zhao challenges education leaders

By Christopher Sun, Writer, British Columbia School Trustees Association

A classroom of Grade 1 students making and selling a product is getting a better education than those focused on getting good grades, says renowned education expert Yong Zhao.

Zhao, a professor at the University of Oregon and a professorial fellow at Australia’s Victoria University, believes the current system of schools placing a huge emphasis on exams and achieving straights As from its students is producing a cookie-cutter workforce of employees which does not guarantee a job in the future. Instead, schools should be fostering creativity and entrepreneurship skills, which is better suited in today’s globalized economy.

“These first graders made beauty products from sugar and maple and made $11,000 which they gave to help poor people,” Zhao said, recalling what happened at a school in the United States. “This allowed more engagement amongst students and developed more confidence, entrepreneurship and creative thinking skills.”

Zhao is the keynote speaker at this year’s Trustee Academy where he will discuss his research and views, which sometimes raise eyebrows as it is an unconventional way in educating children. Zhao travels extensively to speak about his research, and those who attend should come with an open mind and be willing to be challenged, he explained. He has written more than 20 books on the subject of why and how schools need to meet the needs of a globalized economy, calling the focus on testing and grades “outdated” and damaging to a child’s self-esteem as it creates unnecessary stress and fear. Originally from China and having taught there for six years, Zhao knows how difficult it is for many to see his point of view but a paradigm shift is needed to make education more relevant to what’s happening in the workforce.

“Education is about the future, it’s not about the past,” Zhao said, adding that test scores have never been able to define a student’s success or a country’s prosperity.

“A good education should help each individual student find value and passion in what they like, and help them in their area of interest.”

Zhao refers to helping students find what they are good at as ‘personalized learning’, which is one of three elements he believes makes for an excellent education. The second one is product-oriented learning and the third is the globe as the campus.

“Product-oriented learning is about producing authentic and high quality work in class or as homework,” Zhao said. “Homework should serve a bigger purpose instead of it being just about grades.

“Globe as the campus is about globalized change with technology. Our children can learn with and from others wherever they are located. Schools don’t have to be the only place to learn.”

While Zhao’s research and theories have not all been put into practice at once, he has seen schools throughout the world incorporate bits and pieces of his research. As such, he has been actively working with a group of schools in both the United States and in Australia to make the education paradigm shift he has been promoting for years, a reality.

“I call it the shifters program. A network of schools that will be engaged in those three elements,” Zhao said.

“I’m not just about words, I like to put my words into practice.”

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